Lee Bul draws upon the architecture of space, mind and body to construct an exceptional version of everyday reality.

Lee Bul doesn’t talk about meaning. ‘Never,’ she says. She will tell you the materials that hold her works together, the references she draws upon in her research, the architecture she observes in the process, the history that absorbs her, even the philosophical thoughts that drive her, but – publicly, anyway – what the culmination stands for? Its so-called significance? That’s up to the person in front (or inside) of her art to decide.

It isn’t a particularly radical position for an artist to take – this vow of silence – but it’s certainly one requiring discipline. Many artists will claim that an art work is meaningless without the interpretation of the viewer, before embarking on a point-by-point analysis of each incorporated metaphor. Lee, however, remains tight-lipped. Thoughtful and engaging, she speaks to me through a translator over Skype, occasionally breaking from our linguistic triangle to say something in English. She chooses her words carefully. With a laugh, she sometimes corrects the translator. ‘No, no, I’m developing the project, not the meaning,’ she interrupts at one point, true to form. And here I thought we were having an exclusive moment.

In her bright studio in Seoul, South Korea, Lee’s sipping her first coffee of the day. ‘It’s still early here for me,’ she laughs, waiting for the caffeine to kick in. Meanwhile, here I am in Los Angeles, and night-time has long fallen. The first of many visual dichotomies we note in the course of our long talk.

Lee Bul, born in 1964 and trained as a sculptor at Hongik University, has carried her concepts across platforms of performance, drawing, painting, sculpture, video and installation to arrive in contemporary discussion as one of the most influential and original artists working today. Among her more recent achievements is the Noon Award, presented at the 10th Gwangju Biennale in 2014 in recognition of an established artist whose works continue to show great depth of experimentation.

Throughout the conversation, we concentrate on her recent and future endeavours. Lee is a forward-looking woman with an interesting hang-up. ‘With every new project I start, I try to go against everything I’ve made previously,’ she tells me. ‘Every new work is a reaction against the last. But in the end I find that all my work is somehow in the same vein.’ She sighs and smiles: ‘It’s my biggest dilemma.’

Viewed from a strictly visual standpoint, of course, her works across decades seem radically different from one another. Take, for example, Sorry for Suffering – You Think I’m a Puppy on a Picnic? An early piece, developed in the late 1980s and officially dated 1990, Sorry for Suffering was a performance that lasted nearly two weeks and took place across Gimpo International Airport in Seoul and at various sites in Tokyo. Lee, at the core of the performance, wore an extravagant ‘soft sculpture’ suit, perhaps inspired by some sort of crustacean or internal organ. Is that work in the same vein as her ambitious structural pieces of late, such as Civitas Solis II or Via Negativa II? Is there something about these reflective labyrinths that one enters – to become disorientated and fascinated – that pumps from the same heart as Sorry? Lee says there is. She can see the difference between the two approaches – the ‘one step taken between them’, as she puts it – but she also sees, more importantly, the undeniable relationship they share. The material may change, the approach may change, but ultimately they both deal with the same issue.

Question: ‘When you say “material”, do you mean the physical or conceptual substance of your art?’
Answer: ‘I hope the two are always related in my work.’

Question: ‘Will you explain to me what issue you feel these different works address?’
Answer: ‘No.’

Of course the answer is no. What did I expect?
‘It’s really difficult for me to look back,’ she says.

In looking ahead, Lee describes her current fixation. As evident in her present and forthcoming work, she is interested in reflections, mirrors and metallic materials. Her works create visual echoes of their surroundings, similar but not identical representations. The art interacts with viewers, even those who approach it passively.

When in the same room as Via Negativa II, for example, the audience becomes engulfed in the art. Via Negativa II, an aluminium-framed structure composed of mirrors and stainless steel, allows and even invites observers to enter. Those who do so are folded into a claustrophobia of repetitive LED lights and continuous iterations of self. Those who remain physically on the periphery, circling the structure without stepping in, also become a visual element of the work. Inextricably – and inescapably – visitors are part of the work, though it may cause them trepidation. They are reflected on and within the labyrinth, whether or not they want to be, yet the only way to really ‘see’ Via Negativa II is to become a part of it.

The title Via Negativa also raises the question of its definition. Is this work a description of something by way of examining what it is not? Is it about our inability to articulate whatever presence follows us, as viewers, through the work and thus through life? The physical structures that Lee builds for works such as Via Negativa II make the confrontation, with its implied significance, more pronounced. Perhaps that’s why Lee tells me that she ‘always considers how the art work will create a feeling’. She emphasizes that ‘the feeling between art and audience is different from the artist’s concept’.

While it’s true that a concept can be overlooked or bypassed, a feeling is something that one must physically ‘shake’. Viewed with that thought in mind, Lee’s works appeal to something intuitive, not just cerebral. The titles, interestingly enough, contribute to the way that her pieces are felt and not just understood. Via Negativa or ‘negative path’, for instance, is a work failed by the verbalization of what it is, a work identified equally by the negative spaces left by those who aren’t present and by those who are.

Another title, Civitas Solis II, brings to mind the utopian fiction of Tommaso Campanella. Even without proper knowledge of Campanella’s work, the viewer can sense the spiritual depth of his City of the Sun in a large windowless room lit by artificial light. When compared with Via Negativa II, Lee’s 2014 work is a psychologically ‘darker’ confrontation with the reflected self (and the reflection of others). Civitas Solis II fills an entire exhibition room with ‘broken’ mirror and a vigil-like arrangement of LED lights.

Within this art installation, the viewer walks across his or her fragmented likeness and approaches a head-on collision with it – or alternatively retreats from it in full view. In Lee’s current works, the human body is fully immersed in an experience and an atmosphere, which cannot be said about most paintings, sculptures, photographs or performances. It follows, Lee says, that the mind cannot wander away from this sort of experience or atmosphere. She uses ‘human physicality’ to establish a relationship between her work and the human mind: ‘My current works take both body and mind to their extremes.’

Here’s an experiment: whip out your phone or laptop and run an image search for recent works by Lee Bul. The results, well documented, will certainly turn up. Foremost among them, however, will be selfie photographs taken and posted by viewers against the reflective surfaces of Lee’s art. In photographing themselves, they photograph the art as well, weaving a curious texture of existence for the works beyond the gallery halls. Where should the eye focus, after all, art or face? To whom does the ‘like’ belong?

Surely Lee, as thoughtful and meticulous as she is, must have realized that her art could be used as background for a ‘me’ shot, however perverse the role may be for works of such tremendous visual strength. Lee thinks today’s society is one in which ‘we humans are most aware of ourselves’. Her works, no pun intended, are a purposeful reflection of this self-awareness – and of the lack of awareness that sometimes rises from it.

Of course, awareness of the self also drives the effort to make things better for the self. In general terms, this is how Lee views architecture, which she describes as ‘a manifestation of the ideal human condition’. Architecture is an integral part of much of her art, particularly those large-scale installations that amount to a significant space within a significant space. Poetically and practically, Lee speaks of architecture as beginning with the human body and moving outward. A shelter for the body has to understand and somehow follow the human form.

As an artist working within architecture built by others, Lee recognizes that she is ‘not free from the context of that space’. She therefore makes it part of her process to ‘interpret the history of that building in my own way, to try and incorporate some of its aspects into my art work’. Indeed, her works that encompass entire rooms, such as Civitas Solis II, or those that hang prominently from the ceiling and dominate the room, such as Aubade III, seem remarkably in step with the movements of the existing spaces. They are uniquely sincere in their shape-shifting – sensitive to the new architectural environments they inhabit and native to such spaces, yet able to retain their original significance and physical presence.

How will Civitas Solis II and Via Negativa II look and feel in September at Lille 3000 in France, when they appear at Renaissance 2015, an exhibition curated by Jean-Max Colard? How will Aubade III look and feel on display at the Palais de Tokyo in October? Crucial questions for any work of art, they are particularly urgent with regard to Lee’s installations, which confront architecture rather than simply using it. Lee’s remark about architecture beginning with the human body can perhaps be applied to her larger works. They, too, begin with the body and respond to how the body will navigate, experience, and feel the work. At the same time, Lee’s art takes account of ceilings, walls, doors. She considers the shapes and movements of human thought. The different forces that form her work may arrive at the same point, but they also result in a powerful collision of pressures.

‘I never set out to include metaphor or narrative in my work,’ she says, ‘but the references that these works draw upon, and the metaphors contained within the references, collide with each other, crash into each other, crush each other and determine the new direction that I follow.’ Architecture is among the most powerful of her references, a definite point of orientation, even when it results in a purposely indirect compass.

Lee takes another sip of coffee. She has a full day ahead of her. She has an intensive exhibition schedule, much of it centred on new work. She has just completed five large installations for Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Wattens, Austria, which were revealed in late April. In June a travelling exhibition of Lee’s works, many of them architecture installations, moved from the Musée d'art Moderne et Contemporain de Saint-Étienne Métropole in France to the Espai d'Art Contemporani de Castelló in Spain. I ask Lee if she works every day in the studio to stay so prolific.

‘I used to,’ she says. ‘I was very disciplined.’ But she didn’t want her work in the studio to simply become a habit. Nowadays she tries to put some space between herself and the art, a pause intended to allow for observation and research. Inevitably, the pause becomes part of her work as well. Is it surprising to hear that a bit of ostensibly ‘passive’ reflection is integral to Lee’s work? Not really. In the end, her creations have nothing to do with habit and everything to do with existence.

This article debuted in Frame #105 alongside many other inspirational interviews and projects. Find your copy here.

Portraits Antonio Campanella